Out of Bounds
The characters are approached by a group of scientists who urgently need to transport some experimental equipment to a nearby system (they say are taking it to a well-known research facility to give a demonstration). It comprises several trunk sized cases (which they will open if asked - all contain recognisable scientific equipment and tools) and one large sealed container. The container has its own power source and, behind an obvious locked panel (which the team leader will open if they ask to look), a display showing a set of complex readouts (the container and display are standard equipment, but the characters can make no sense of the readouts). This apparently contains delicate samples in powered containment. The have all the right credentials and a letter of reference from a senior regional noble, who unfortunately isn't in system to help them out (although the starport authorities can verify they are who they say they are). These are clearly NOT terrorists, criminals, pirates, or any other kind of ne'er-do-well. They require access to the cargo en route. They are offering a good sum (whatever seems reasonable for the campaign) to take the equipment and some (or all if there is room on the ship) of the team to their destination. If pushed, they will increase it to a large sum, since they say that they cannot find a regular shipper who can accommodate them in time.
Possible directions to take this:
- Everything is as represented. The equipment is harmless. The trip passes without incident. The team think they are on to something groundbreaking (although anything useful is years away, even if it pans out) and will talk about it happily. Unfortunately, none of the characters have enough background in the applicable sciences to follow the explanations properly. The referee may talk about the anticipated consequences of some fundamental limitation(s) of the universe and handwaved explanations of how they might 'get around them'. The players get a science lesson while the tension builds and they wait for something to go wrong.
- As above, but the scientists are very reticent and will not talk about the cargo unless pressed. They do, however, check the cargo at regular intervals and look anxious during the whole of the jump. In this case, once the scientists start talking, it turns out that they have (or think they have) a region of 'space' in the main container where the laws of physics are 'different', which may be seriously dangerous if mishandled. Make sure they point out that trying to jettison the cargo WOULD constitute mishandling if necessary. They approached the characters because none of the regular shippers would take them.
- As 2 above, but when they get to their destination, the starport authorities will not let them land if they find out what they are carrying. Resolve this as necessary.
- Apparently as 2 above, except one of the team will be very garrulous once the news is out and will talk to the characters at every opportunity ('It's a relief to be able to talk, actually'). They will try to reassure the characters whilst actually making the situation sound worse and worse ('The chance that it'll cause a phase shift in the vacuum state and release zero-point energy exponentially is really very small.'). The readouts start worrying the team more and more, near the end of the trip there will be fault in the container's power source, requiring the characters to rig up a power supply to it, then, as soon as the ship docks, the scientists abandon ship onto the dock. The players are left to deal with the cargo, which will sound an alarm, start venting some kind of coolant, whatever seems appropriate, then suddenly pop open to reveal a large display showing the host of the local equivalent of 'Candid Camera' or 'You've Been Framed'. The team have filmed EVERYTHING from the first approach and will edit it to make the most amusing programme (read: make the characters look as bad as possible). The contract for the trip included a release for the footage in the (very small) print.
- As 2 above, except that the worst happens. The equipment goes critical during the trip and the ship experiences several hours of altered physics. Work out the real side effects of your favourite SF handwave and inflict them on the characters. If they are going to be fatal, localise them to some parts of the ship so the players can see the results without experiencing them and/or, in the best traditions of sf, inflict them on handy NPCs (maybe some of the science team). After a few hours the effect breaks down and normality restores itself.
- As 5 above, except the effect is permanent and propagates across the campaign area at whatever speed seems dramatically appropriate. Explain to the players how the universe now works - or let them work it out for themselves.